But how do you turn ideas into a story?
Once you start creating a culture, power base and infrastructure for your world, the ideas for conflict and therefore stories in that world almost write themselves.
Not that I did a geeky world building mental exercise and then populated it. I started with some vague ideas for a couple of characters, my general aims for the book as above, and some general evocative themes – dark matter, water, stone, purity, fractals, infinity etc.
My central character is/was autistic. This is a condition many find fascinating, not least when there are savant abilities attached. Quite often these are untrained musical or artistic virtuosity, or mathematical abilities (see Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man). From my limited understanding, much of this is down to innate pattern recognition ability. Music is just numbers after all.
The first line I wrote for the book was “God is dead”, and it has never changed. Although Nietzsche coined the phrase, he was not speaking in a literal sense. Speculative fiction is all about the What If question. So what if, literally, god was dead? In a fantasy world where god can be real, what would the death of god mean?
And if god saw her own death approaching, what would she do about it? Would a mere human have the ability to succeed her? In my world, I decided no. What about an autistic savant with the ability to see the underlying beauty of form, connections, mathematics and infinity? Possibly. But he would have to become much more than human first. How could that happen?
So ideas become a story in a kind of join-the-dots way, where one leads on to another, where conflicts arises when there are opposing desires, when tension is created where there are obstacles to overcome and salvation is always in doubt.
So, what’s it about?
Don’t ask a writer this unless you want to see them turn red, steam billow from their ears and their hands start to shake as they try to condense 100 thousand words or more into a sentence. Instead, ask someone who has read it.
Authors are pretty useless at summarising their own stories. Writing a synopsis for a potential publisher is tantamount to self-harm. It’s not so much can’t see the wood for the trees, as can’t see the wood for the atoms in the cells in the leaves on the branches of the trees.
Yeah, whatever. What’s it about?
Ok, it’s fantasy, but nothing like Tolkien or Harry Potter. There are no dark lords, or dragons, or mystic crystals, or magic rings. No elves, or dwarves, or orcs.
Well actually, the maaladons could be a modern equivalent of dragons, the Baan have some Elvin characteristics, the powerful ovolith stones are a sort of mystic crystal – but there are no dwarves or magic rings. Definitely.
At the end of the day when all is said and done, there is nothing new under the sun, and there are only seven types of story. Originality is all about disguising your influences, recognising clichés so as to avoid them as much as possible, and using the seven basic story types in a new and interesting way.
I’ve never read a fantasy novel. Why should I read yours?
All genre literature has its conventions and peculiarities, from thrillers to police procedurals, to whodunits and romances. We gravitate to one or the other because they satisfy a need or interest we have. Crossing genres can therefore be disorientating as the conventions and peculiarities may take some time to absorb. Speculative fiction can be more challenging than most because more suspension of disbelief (Samuel Coleridge) can be required.
Someone pointed out that my opening line, God is dead, could be offensive to religious people who are not familiar with fantasy and be seen as an attack on their belief, therefore alienating them from the novel before they had even begun reading it. People familiar with the genre however, are more likely to understand we’re talking about a fantasy god in a fantasy world, where such deities might not be eternal and omniscient, and be in no way a commentary on real world religions.
There is a view that fantasy is a poor relation to literary fiction, and an arrogant assertion that it is shallow escapism without artistic worth. I try to remind myself of this when struggling through some pointless dirge on the Booker list, or when drowning in the cloying nostalgia of other supposed classics. For me, the best fantasy is all about exhilaration; whether in the beauty of a more simplistic world, the thunder of a cataclysmic battle, or the mystery of primal harmony. The prose of Stephen Donaldson can be breathtaking at times. The razor wit and thoughtful social commentary of Terry Pratchett is among the best in any genre. The pounding brutal action of Joe Abercrombie shames the efforts of many lauded thriller writers. If you want to feel alive, then fantasy is for you.
The Glittering Cage is full of action and clips along at a relentless pace. There are some strange, perhaps challenging concepts, and even stranger creatures. There’s love interest (a bit twisted), plenty of violence (moderate gore and brutality), two sex scenes (one definitely twisted), some intrigue and betrayal, and a lot of agony, torment, death and heartless manipulation in store for the main character. I even tried to make the reader cry at one point. But there’s no comedy. I’m not a funny guy.
How do you construct the plot?
I don’t. It all just falls together somehow.
Well, that’s not strictly true. Most novels have a story arc where the protagonist starts out in one state, perhaps in innocence or cynicism, and becomes the opposite by the end. Others can be cyclical, where the character takes a journey back to where he started. In the Glittering Cage, Rift is autistic as a boy, is “cured” by having the memories of past life cut out of him. This being a fantasy world, those memories grow into a physical person, becoming the antagonist Rift must defeat. That being established, the story could only ever have one conclusion, which was for him to return to an autistic state by re-absorbing his doppelganger.
More than any other genre, fantasy novels often incorporate a physical journey of discovery, mirroring the emotional journey of the main character; (We probably have Tolkien to thank for that, as with many other fantasy staples).
For that reason, I set off writing this book with no real idea where it was going to wander, and with only a vague idea where it would end. As with a physical journey into the unknown, sometimes you wander into dead-ends, but the joy of discover as new vistas opened up is what really fires the imagination, and hopefully that enthusiasm shines through.
Of course, when it’s done the journey is mapped, and you can go back and erase the wrong turns, sprinkling the text with hints of what’s to come, so that when you have your hero hanging from a cliff, the miraculous escape doesn’t come across as a Deus ex machina (i.e. a contrived plot device). You trod a meandering trail through the long grass when you first set out, but in the second draft, because you know where you’re going, you can drive a nice straight road.
Some authors plot in detail before they write a word. Others have a more organic approach. I lean more towards the latter than the former.